The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Blind Earnhardt Prophecy, Diversity Disasters And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday August 1, 2012

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Did You Notice?… How so many people in NASCAR are living on a prayer? Too bad even Jon Bon Jovi would know better than to believe Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is on the verge of “reviving” the sport. I know what you’re saying… who am I to shoot the messengers? After all, in the past 72 hours Earnhardt has been revered for his ability to rise for the top of the point standings for the first time in eight years; that, his win at Michigan and a rumored ability to walk on water on the way has made him a demigod during a week there hasn’t been much to write about.

But speculation, in this case can be replaced by simple fact, one quotation that more than any other explains why the 2012 version of Junior will never be the “national racing savior” for millions of disillusioned fans he once was on the verge of becoming. The words were a simple answer, really, to a question as innocent as “How do you feel about your teammate (Jimmie Johnson) winning the race?”

In a NASCAR summer where exciting news has been hard to come by, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has emerged as the points leader and the big story.

“Awesome,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “We would actually rather us two to fight for the championship at the end knowing one of us is going to get it for the company.”

Stop right there; digest, knowing “the company” is the largest organization in Cup Series history, Hendrick Motorsports. Now envision the man he’s named after. Dale Earnhardt, Sr., the Intimidator, the man who shoved your rear bumper out of the way en route to roaring into Victory Lane by any means possible. A man who resisted the multi-car format, ultimately capitulating in 1996 when owner Richard Childress saw the writing on the wall but struggled in many instances to embrace fellow driver Mike Skinner during his tenure. Can you imagine him taking a deep breath, getting settled after a fourth-place finish and saying “I’m excited regardless of who wins the championship… if we keep it in the company? I’m happy to be a part of it.”

While you’re at it, let’s picture Kobe Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, any famous athlete in any other sport. Heck, let’s envision Tony Stewart as recently as seven years ago. How many of them would walk off the court, turn towards a reporter’s mic and go, “I’m just proud to get this win for the company?” Here’s who I would expect that quote from; my best friend in technology, working in an office cubicle and on the verge of receiving the Employee of the Month Award for bringing donuts in every Friday. Or, maybe have that line be the butt of the joke on NBC’s The Office after some absurd competition.

Now imagine how the fans of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would have felt about that. People don’t turn on the auto racing channel for sitcom plots or situations that resemble their own 9 to 5. They want to be wowed by on-track competition, connected to the sport through unique personalities they can relate to in a way that resembles a beautiful dream — not their boss. How does NASCAR’s typical, blue-collar fan connect to someone who refers to his organization as a white-collar “company?” How do 16-year-olds that once revered Earnhardt, Jr. on MTV Cribs connect to a 37-year-old whose statements now make him sound like he should be a clean-cut southern executive, working in the business banks of downtown Charlotte with a shirt and tie?

What everyone forgets, with the resurgence of Earnhardt, Jr. are the choices he made all those years ago, throwing away a marriage under the family name for a partnership with NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees. The man was already different from his father, preferring to not to use the bumper but his brain in winning many races through what some might call the righteous, “Mark Martin” way of strategy and perseverance. That’s fine. But the second he signed on the dotted line, Earnhardt took things a step further, branching out from his dad in choosing the ultimate racing corporate culture over any possible alternative. Dale Sr. was about every man for himself; Earnhardt, Jr. chose 400 people and four teams working together as one. Dale, Sr. was about saying whatever came to mind; Dale, Jr. still has that, can’t turn those genetics off but it’s mixed in with making sure to say the right thing in between. Hendrick’s training has worked like a charm.

So that choice, despite the famous name makes him no more endearing to the next generation of fans as the politically correct version of Jimmie Johnson. Some of those have never forgotten; for proof, you can’t look here, because they’re not reading this column and have left the sport for other hobbies long ago. Yes, Earnhardt will always have the die-hards, those fans who have cheered for his success thick and thin. That tight-knit group will always dominate the popular voting, in a way Bill Elliott always won that award even in years when the on-track performance was rendered insignificant. But in many ways, Earnhardt, Jr. at this point has made himself just a cog in the wheel; heck, he’s not even the winningest driver in his own race shop, trailing Johnson despite being on top of the standings.

Back in the 1990s, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. had a rivalry on-track with Jeff Gordon that was as fierce as any. He respected, even befriended the man but when it came to that team’s philosophy? The Intimidator would have spit on a Hendrick Motorsports contract and ripped it to shreds no matter the money. His son chose a different path, a virtual lifetime deal and while that bought him financial security most will only dream of, some will feel a part of his soul was sold once the handshake was made.

Winning a championship, even contending for one doesn’t change a shift in cultural perception. Earnhardt made the choice… and he can’t go back.

Did You Notice?… NASCAR battling some more national criticism on its lack of minorities driving at the sport’s top level? This segment, which aired on ESPN’s Outside The Lines before the start of Sunday’s Brickyard 400 accuses the Drive For Diversity program of being “ceremonial” and has critics going so far as to claim NASCAR is going so far as “intentionally” avoiding setting up potential connections between Fortune 500 companies that back them and minority talent.

After years of investigating this issue, I think some of the conclusions are, at best a bit of a reach. It’s also untrue no Drive For Diversity candidate has ever run full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three series; right now, Paulie Harraka (an FS Diary Driver in 2012) is busy doing just that as a rookie in Camping World Trucks. But what is factual is, nine years into the sport’s program tailored to provide opportunities to minorities the number of Sprint Cup drivers it’s produced is zero. There are all sorts of theories behind it, from more time needed to not enough talent to an inability of the organization to connect to the power players at NASCAR’s top three levels.

Paulie Harraka, competing full-time in the Truck Series with Wauters Motorsports is one of NASCAR’s biggest success stories from its Drive For Diversity program.

I think one of the biggest problems, with the reissue revisited on a national scale is a lack of new ownership. Time and time again, that’s been listed as an issue with Cup Series start-and-parks now approaching ten each race within a 43-car field. And of the 33 cars that do have money, they’re owned by just a handful of people whose teams are often accompanied by that hotel sign weary travelers don’t want to see: “No vacancy.” For example, Joe Gibbs, once the supporter for one of the sport’s most successful minority drivers in Marc Davis may very well expand to four teams in 2013. If he does that, with each of them (Hamlin, Busch, Logano and Kenseth) signed to long-term contracts why would he be in the market for developing minority talent? His Cup program is maxed out; the roster behind the wheel is secure. Developing Davis, in Gibbs’ mind is unnecessary in the grand scheme of making his team successful.

No, minority drivers need new owners that can find the funding and have the focus to bring those talents along. The benefits, potentially tapping into millions of Americans who have never so much as heard of the sport are strong. And with a vacuum in the industry right now, so many fans disillusioned with racing and wondering where to turn with their loyalty the right, charismatic choices create an opportunity for when the breakthrough does come. At some point, there’s going to be a Tiger Woods of racing, a “Danica-like” personality capable of such magnetism; and someone, in some series in America is going to discover them and have the money to succeed. The longer NASCAR takes to get its act together here, the greater risk it runs to lose out to IndyCar on this type of natural evolution for a second time.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off:

- NASCAR says ratings for the Brickyard, off 17 percent from a year ago were “expected” to be down due to NBC’s Olympic coverage from London. That’s slightly worse than what happened in 2008, though; two of the three races suffered drops of 14 percent, respectively while Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt dominated the sports headlines. What’s worse is after the games were over, viewership struggled to return, with only the Homestead season finale reaching the coveted 4.0 mark in the Nielsens. What does that mean? The true damage of London could is looking worse, not better, and long-term effects can’t be truly measured until the Michigan race in mid-August.

- Some have expressed surprise at Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya getting virtual rubber-stamp re-signings over at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (both are in negotiations for long-term deals). Considering the way McMurray especially has performed, you do have to scratch your head a bit with drivers like Joey Logano, Brian Vickers and even Kurt Busch available. And how much longer do we give the mediocre NASCAR resume of Montoya, one of the most successful drivers to ever grace the sport of open-wheel racing before we say “Stock cars just aren’t working out?”

- Who says you can’t have a good title race in the Nationwide Series? All you need to do is kick out the Cup regulars, not use the Chase and blow a restart call to make sure it’s a nail-biter. Whoops! Did I speak out of turn?

- To NASCAR’s credit: the plan to wipe out the top 35 after the season, which I hear is gaining steam will be the right call. They’ve finally realized there needs to be incentive and/or an easy opening for new owners and funding to join the sport; moreover, in the long-term I also wonder if the change will one day inadvertently solve the start-and-park problem. Can you imagine if some of the S&Pers qualify strong at Talladega while a Ryan Newman, let’s say, blows an engine and fails to make it? You’re leaving a superstar at home so someone can park it after 10 laps? I guarantee you it would take 48 hours for a solution to magically appear.

- Sam Hornish, Jr. went a long way towards securing a future with the No. 22 Dodge after a 16th-place finish at Indianapolis. But until there’s a top-5 result, something that reminds you this team made the Chase less than a year ago don’t think he’s got this ride in the bag. Shell / Pennzoil is accustomed to success, and as mentioned above in the EGR case there’s other options available. Penske would be silly, especially with possible other sponsorship for Sam not to give a few of those other candidates an audition.

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Steve K
08/01/2012 06:04 AM
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I think you have found Felipe Massa’s replacement! Dale Jr. would make a wonderful #2 driver for Fernando Alonso. At Ferrari it is all about the Scuderia and not the driver.

As for minorities in the sport, I think of Darrel Wallace Jr. and Kyle Larson will be in Cup once this old generation slowly (finally?) goes away. Cup really needs some new blood. You cannot just put a guy in a car if he can’t get the job done.

Ganassi’s problem is not the driver. Look at the standings and look at the results and they are always next to each other. Unless the equally suck, which I do not think they do, you have to say it’s the car. Or maybe the engine? Who shares the ECR engine shop with them? Richard Childress racing has been terrible too this year. About the only driver who is overachieving is Paul Menard. Burton has been terrible and Harvick has not been his normal self. Harvick will make the chase, but he won’t contend for the championship which is something he ought to be doing. Of the five drivers who use that engine, Harvick is the most talented so he should be ahead of the other four. Something seems off with that ECR engine.

Montoya hasn’t lit the world on fire but I don’t think you could say his stock car career was a failure. Three wins, two in Cup, and a Chase is far from failing. However, Ganassi does have a wonderful program for aging drivers. Scott Pruett cannot drive forever. In a couple years, Kyle Larson will be ready (especially if testing comes back) and Montoya can wreak some havoc with Memo Rojas in the 01 Telmex car.

Stephen Hood
08/01/2012 07:34 AM
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The record indicated that Earnhardt, Sr., first fought and then reluctantly accepted the multi-car team. Yet, when Earnhardt began his own Cup operation, it quickly morphed into a multi-car team. Your probably right that Earnhardt the driver would never subordinate himself to the success of the organization over his own success as a driver. Yet, my guess is that Earnhardt the car owner would be fighting tooth and nail to make his racing organization every bit as successful as Rick Hendrick. He would insist that his drivers work together for the success of the organization.

MJR in Springfield, VA
08/01/2012 07:48 AM
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No, Earnhardt Jr. is not the answer to NA$CAR’s problems. His resurgence (albeit kind of like the last sparkle from one of the cheap fireworks fountains) is not what is going to save NA$CAR. For you see, NA$CARs problem, is, well…NA$CAR!

Think about it this way; if you had the best-damn-whiz-banger on the market, something everyone was clamoring to get a piece of, be a part of, devote tons of money and time to. And then, you decide that it needed to be changed…you know add a whatsamajigger here and toss out a couple do-dads here and there, and oh by the way, stick a WTF-is-this on the end of it, and then tell your customer is “new and improved.” And then WHAMO – they not only walk away, the fly out of the stands in droves.

What would you do – #1 keep the same “new and improved” version – or – # 2 listen to your customers and sit down and figure out how to fix it? Well, if you are NA$CAR you pick #1….screw the customer they don’t know what they want.

Earnhardt Jr. rising to the top of the points standings is not going to fix the cause of NA$CAR whoas. Fixing things like lost races and race tracks, ridiculous point schemes, inconsistence rules, da da, da…listening to the customer might be a good place to start. NO, I MEAN REALLY LISTENING TO YOUR CUSTOMER.

Only wish NA$CAR could see that before it is way too late.

Carl D.
08/01/2012 10:30 AM
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I agree with Steve K that the problem at EGR is not the drivers. When it comes to building competitive race cars, EGR has fallen behind the curve, and whether recently announced changes will make a difference down the road is anybody’s guess.

Lydia
08/01/2012 02:58 PM
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Ok…you opened the door..now I guess I’ll stick my neck through and probably get it whacked off! Junior is having a great season! By gosh he got his 2nd win in six years..what..five races ago? Let’s see…pretty swell equipment..choice of crew chiefs (don’t have the 48 tattooed on your arm Chad) highest money earner…most fans! Hmmmm ..perfect driver..except…he’s not! I’m not a Junior hater folks…but numbers don’t lie…he’s not his daddy, or Gordon, or Johnson, or Stewart or Edwards or Martin or even Kayne…he’s a good, middle of the road, driver. And let me say there’s nothing wrong with that! He’s having a great season…but shouldn’t he? It’s odd to me he’s getting all these accolades for doing what he’s expected to do! Can he win a championship? Well, there’s always that possibility…but saying he would like JJ..or any of his team mates to take the
title if he doesn’t…makes me feel he doesn’t have the confidence, gumption, or maybe the desire to put himself out there and really dig down deep to get the title.

oldirtracker
08/01/2012 03:36 PM
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C’mon Tom grow some big ones and write an article about what relly happened with the Indy nationwide restart fiasco, you are the man to do it, so far Jimmy Spencer is the only person that has brought up the fact that bad Brad tries to hink restarts all the time with either the nail it slow down, or the brakecheck and Nascar lets him get by with it .

Larry Burton
08/01/2012 05:51 PM
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I agree with most of the article. I have been saying Jr. is too good sometimes. Oh, he doesn’t have to be like his dad but sometimes you need to rub some paint and get close to someones bumper and loosen them up. But, if it comes down to the last race and the championship comes down to Jimmy and Jr., then Jr. better be ready to loosen him up or rub paint with him if it comes down to that. And no, I’m not talking about wrecking no one I’m just talking about racing so hard to win you may rub someone in a turn trying to out run them. After all, this is racing and being too nice is fine for being liked in the pits but it can cost you a championship or two if you let it. Heck, even Gordon and Johnson and bumped a little going for wins and sometimes you have to or else you lose.

djones
08/01/2012 09:15 PM
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I too am glad the top 35 rule is going away. I wonder if it embarrasses brian france that Terry Labonte is 43rd in points? He’s ran what, 3 races?

Regarding the diversity program, why is diversity successful in the NHRA but not nascar? Maybe because the NHRA never had a diversity program, that I know of?

I feel sorry for Jr having all that pressure on him once again. Stay strong Jr.

@MJR, I just loved your post.

Glenn
08/02/2012 12:31 AM
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First driver to win a NASCAR race for Hendrick Motorsports: Dale Earnhardt Sr. Busch Grand National race.

ArkyBass
08/02/2012 08:54 AM
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Glenn, thats awesome! BA-Bing!

jo-jr
08/03/2012 07:14 PM
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If you can’t say something good about a driver. best not to open your mouth an show how dumb you are! guess who this is aimed at!

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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